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RFID Keeps Floaters Out of Beverages

Global beverage companies are employing an HF RFID solution from Dorcia Engineering and Feig Electronics that detects if a piece of machinery called a vent tube breaks off, ensuring that it never ends up in a drink or delays production.
By Claire Swedberg
Mar 17, 2020

A generation ago, this reporter's father brought home a six-pack of soda for a Fourth of July picnic. There was a surprise floating in one of the bottles: a long chunk of steel trapped in the carbonated beverage. Apparently, a piece of the bottling plant had found its way into the drink. This is a problem that bottling plants still face, but a solution is now available thanks to RFID technology. That piece of steel suspended in the soda was a vent tube filler, used to fill each bottle and vent out the carbonation-related gas. Occasionally, due to wear and tear, such tubes can fall off. In many cases, no one sees this happen.

Dorcia Engineering has partnered with Feig Electronics to build a real-time locating system (RTLS) for monitoring vent tube fillers used at bottling plants, via RFID technology. The companies will demonstrate the new solution at the RFID Journal LIVE! 2020 conference and exhibition, which will be held in Orlando, Fla., on Apr. 28-30.

What likely happened with that bottled soda years ago, says Grant Cook, Docia Engineering's cofounder, is the vent tube malfunctioned, dropped directly into the bottle and was thus sealed inside by the bottle cap. What's more, he adds, the soda company probably experienced delays on the day it happened, as employees searched in vain for the missing vent, hoping to avoid shipping the faulty product to stores.

These days, such devices can be made of plastic. The beverage-bottling industry has put safeguards and processes in place to ensure that vent tubes never end up lost, especially in products destined for consumers. Such processes are time-consuming and expensive, however. First of all, there's the question of the sheer volume of products being packaged. The aluminum can industry alone produces 200 billion cans annually.

One million plastic beverage bottles are purchased every minute worldwide. Single-serve containers are the preference of consumers, driving that growing volume. To keep up with that volume, Cook says, beverage companies must employ high-speed automation. "They have multiple automated filling lines in those plants," he states, and the industry relies on that automation. A single bottle or can typically moves through the process at a speed of 4 to 6 feet per second, with production continuing 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. More than 2,500 bottles or cans can be produced within one minute on a single production line.

A production line typically utilizes 72 to 165 vent tubes that revolve quickly above bottles or cans. In fact, the containers themselves are in motion while they are filled. The vent tube is crucial to the bottling process, Cook reports, as it deposits the liquid and vents off carbon dioxide gasses, thereby ensuring that the container does not foam over or over-flow. This high productivity rate at beverage plants also means that shutting down a production line, even for a short span of time, leads to significant loss of productivity. "Even the slightest disruption can be a major problem," Cook states.

To prevent this from occurring, many companies voluntarily shut down their lines on an hourly basis in order to visually inspect the vents and ensure that they are all still intact. If one is found to be missing, a company may need to quarantine all products and have workers search for the vent. Some technology is available to address the problem, such as high-speed cameras, X-rays and lasers, but they come with shortcomings. Even though these systems may detect a vent tube breakage, they cannot uniquely identify which vent tube the production crews need to look for, or where it might be located.

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